Jesus is in need of a sabbatical. He’s exhausted from the work he’s been doing and he needs a little vacay. He doesn’t know about Hawaii or the Florida Keys, so he just leaves town and goes to another area. It’s supposed to be a quiet little vacation, away from the crowds and away from the disappointing rejection of his own family members.
Just as he’s settling into his chaise lounge on the beach, sipping his wine cooler, something annoying happens that manages to ruin his plan. He’s recognized by a woman who will challenge him to expand his vision of reality. He thought he was getting away from everything, but instead, this woman reminds him that God has another plan, a bigger plan than he initially imagined. This additional work will take him beyond the boundaries of Judea.
Ever since his baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus had signed up to serve the faithful people, the Elect of Israel, but through the interruption of this woman, he comes to see that God is much bigger than any one tribe of people. Her vision of a more inclusive world becomes his own, and both he and his ministry are changed forever.
It’s like going to a concert and finding that too many tickets have been sold, so many that you and I end up being left outside on the street, straining to hear the band from outside the building. We would absolutely insist that we be allowed to hear the band because our ticket had entitled us to do so. If necessary, we would even tell the security people to remind the band that they had fans outside the building, too—not just inside. “Tell them to remember those of us on the outside”, we might tell them.
This is precisely what the woman says to Jesus: “Remember those of us on the outside!” Somehow Jesus hadn’t really seen them before. He hadn’t really noticed their pain, their feelings of unworthiness, the heavy baggage they carried within themselves. Jesus had completely missed these people, but when the woman insisted and held her ground, he realized she was right, and as a result, her daughter was healed.
You and I have experienced feelings of shame and blame, judging ourselves and being judged by others—often within the walls of the very Church that was created to welcome and nurture us. We know how it feels to carry our burdens with no one noticing or caring about our situation. We have, some of us, become accustomed to being on the outside, but some of us are still resentful and a little bitter sometimes. We know instinctively that we didn’t deserve to be shut out and rejected. We trust intuitively that the real God would never desire such a thing. It’s thanks to this unnamed woman who manages to pry open the doors of God’s love that you and I find ourselves loved unconditionally and forever. The doors this woman pried open can never be closed to us again.
Perception is reality, as you already know. If we get up in the morning and it’s dark and rainy, and we say, “It’s going to be a depressing day”, guess what? We have a depressing day. If we meet someone who gives us the impression she is dishonest or calculating, guess what? For us, that person is dishonest and calculating.
Whether we want to admit it or not, our perception of things is what makes them real for us. When I got my first pair of bifocals, I was sure that everyone was staring at me. When I perceive that my classroom is cold, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks,it’s still cold to me. When I think I’m the only person at home who does laundry, I only notice when I do it. Even if others do it more often, I don’t take notice of it. If a student makes a negative first impression, it’s human nature to make some assumptions about him.
Naseem was one of those students: more immature than normal for his age. He came into my room as a 7th grader, bumping into stuff like a 4 month old puppy, growing too fast for his coordination to keep up. He talked constantly, even when I expected him to keep quiet. He loved my class and took me again as an 8th grader. I was in constant contact with his mother and together we would devise reward and punishment strategies to get his behaviors under control. He was very intellligent and because he had lived much of his life in Morocco, he had a wider view of reality than most of us. He was passionate about social justice and the summer after he graduated 8th grade, we kept in touch by email. One day he sent me a PowerPoint presentation that his uncle had made of the casualties of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that year. The slides showed the bodies of babies and young children, clinging to their dead mothers in some cases. It was horrible and heartrending. He wrote, “I will never forget your class and you telling us that humans can be so cruel to each other. I am sending you this because you are someone who cares and I will not forget what you taught me.” I replied, “Naseem, you are one of the most exasperating people I have ever known, and I am thankful that you keep in touch. If you need help in French or anything else, let me know.”
Shortly after that email, 3 days after his 15th birthday, Naseem died in an accident at his home. I sang at his memorial service, remembering the months I hand found him so annoying in my classroom, grateful for his presence in my life and for the lessons he taught his former teacher. His father told me that everyone in Fez, his hometown in Morocco, had heard the stories of Mr.Holland, the one teacher Naseem had respected and loved.
Our perceptions define our realities. And the problem is that we don’t often question them. We don’t perceive God at work in our world, for instance, and we begin to think maybe God is not real. We read the mythical stories about miracles in the Bible. We might even hear people at work talk about how God has answered their prayers—but then we watch CNN, and we see babies dying of AIDS, children being abused, and we wonder why they aren’t getting their miracle.
It’s not that God is on vacation, it’s that our vision needs healing so we can see how God is at work in our world, and even in our classroom.
Jesus tries to get away by going to a foreign land. An outsider reminds him of the truth he already knows: no one is outside of God’s love. And once he is reminded, he never forgets. His perceptions of people around him had changed. Everyone was now welcome at God’s table, no exceptions.
We are all welcome here, regardless of our perceptions. We come in the name of Jesus, who has shown us mercy, who comes with power to make us whole. Through grace, we continually open our eyes to the reality that God’s Reign in on the move. Thankfully, God already sees us more clearly and more accurately and in a more positive light than we can ever see ourselves. Thank God for that!